Film Review: Tactical Unit -- The Code

BOTTOM LINE: A slow-boiling police story brimming with warm human interest.

Udine Far East Film Festival

UDINE, Italy -- Johnnie To's trademark advocacy of team work and professionalism as the cornerstone of social order is intelligently challenged in "Tactical Unit - The Code." Produced by To and executed by his company Milkyway Image, it marks an unostentatious and grounded treatment of a character-driven police story by veteran editor Law Wing-Cheong, in his second stint as solo director.

The first of four telefeatures capped by a fifth episode made for the screen, the project is circumscribed by its small production scale, and is unlikely to make it to theaters in stand-alone form. Overseas TV slots and DVD shelf life depend on how other episodes turn out.

Law examines the pros and cons of going by the book or bending the rules to get the job done. An internal investigation on some unclear footage of PTU officers thrashing a suspect triggers a race to find said suspect by rival parties. Meanwhile, PTU officer Eight (Lee Kwok-lun) loses his grip when obedience to staff procedure results in demotion. The crisis escalates when teammates must choose between covering their tracks and coming to Eight's aid.

Since the success of "Infernal Affairs," Hong Kong films have portrayed the police force as a den of moles and counter-moles ad absurdum. At last, there's a film showing solidarity across the ranks, while pointing out the fine line between team spirit and simply looking out for one's own.

Those lured by To or Milkyway's label to expect the high-handed cinematic flourishes of "The Mission" or "Exiled" better not hold their breath. Law coordinates action with the technical finish of an artisan, not the style-consciousness of an auteur. Keeping pace of the linear script on an even keel, the first hour simmers without a spark. But in the last 20 minutes, a double stake-out brings tensions to a boil through fluid shooting in compact interiors of a police station.

Opposite to the bluesy nocturnal mood of its predecessor "PTU," the visual texture of "Tactical Unit" (shot mostly in daytime on video) has a slightly dull sheen that deglamorizes the sphere of operation.

Milkyway Image (HK) Limited

Cast: Simon Yam, Maggie Siu, Lee Kwok-lun, Lam Suet.

Director-editor: Law Wing-Cheong .
Screenwriter: Yip Tin-shing.
Producer: Johnnie To.
Executive Producer: Daniel Lam
Directors of photography: Chan Siu-kwan, Tsou Lin-yau.
Art director: Sukie Yip.
Music: Tomy Wai.
Sales: Universe Films Distribution Co. Ltd.
No rating, 90 minutes.